The Minnesota Wild have iced competitive teams in the past, particularly during the recent Zach Parise/Ryan Suter era. You don't qualify for the playoffs in seven of the past nine seasons without an above-average roster. However, this year's group is different from the teams of the past. Following their back-to-back wins this past weekend, Minnesota now has an astonishing seven come-from-behind victories, most in the NHL.
So what's different? It's easy to point to Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala, the team's first true game-breakers in years. However, both players are off to a slow start, but the team keeps winning. No, the Wild are winning with their depth, which is not the type of depth Wild fans are accustomed to.
Young, dynamic forwards in their bottom-6 like Brandon Duhaime, Nico Sturm, Rem Pitlick, and Ryan Hartman have wholly changed the Wild's shape. They're controlling play and driving offense at a rate the State of Hockey isn't accustomed to. It's a stark contrast to the bland, safe role players typically occupying the bottom of the lineup.
Even at the peak of the Parise/Suter era, aging veterans made up most of their depth. They were selected less for their skills and more for their ability not to make mistakes. For instance, in 2013-14, the Wild advanced past the first round for the first time since their surprise run in 2003. It was a team led by Parise, Suter, and Mikko Koivu in their prime. However, Cody McCormick, Matt Cooke, and Dany Heatley comprised the depth of their forward unit. All three were nearing the end of their careers.
The Wild pushed past the first round the year after that, only to face the Chicago Blackhawks again. And again, they relied on grey-haired vets to supplement their depth. Their lineup consisted of these same types of veterans who made minimal offensive impact all season. Cooke returned at the ripe age of 36, with 31-year old Ryan Carter joining him. Again, Minnesota's offense lived and died with their top stars.
Fast forward to a more recent era, when head coach Bruce Boudreau and Eric Staal brought another wave of early and disappointing playoff exits. Minnesota finished the regular season with 49 wins in 2016-17, the most in franchise history. They spent most of the season with the bottom of their lineup comprised of unproven grinders in Tyler Graovac, Jordan Schroeder, and veteran Chris Stewart. They were younger but the same kind of player. Each of them was less known for their offensive skillsets and more known for their ability to play smart, safe hockey, and perhaps drop the gloves from time to time. The result was another first-round exit when their star players couldn't solve St. Louis Blues goaltender Jake Allen. The depth didn't possess the talent to step up when Allen shut down their stars.
The decision to constantly subject the fans to older, slower veterans at the bottom of the lineup was partially due to years of poor drafting and development. The Wild's most recent general managers, Paul Fenton and now Bill Guerin, have done a fantastic job in that department.
Over the past couple of seasons, the Wild have steadily changed to the bottom of the lineup, focusing on younger players developing into impact roles. Now we're seeing the fruit of this in the form of the most dynamic and skilled forward depth the Wild have ever had.
It all started with improved drafting and signing of key college players. Brandon Duhaime spent ample time developing his game at the college and AHL level after being drafted in 2018, leading to his breakout this year. Nico Sturm signed as a free agent out of Clarkson University. He also developed in college and the AHL before earning a regular roster spot last season. Both players bring a dynamic, offensive threat to the Wild's bottom-6 this season and currently lead all forwards in CF% and just about every scoring chance metric.
But it's been more than just drafting and development. The Wild have also shifted their mindset in acquiring players to fill out the fringes of their roster. Gone are the days of signing grizzled vets hoping they can provide dependable defense while on the ice. Instead, Minnesota signs depth players hoping they can provide some scoring from the bottom of the lineup.
Ryan Hartman and Nick Bjugstad are former first-round draft picks who provide speed and drive offense consistently. They are far above average at creating offense this season. Hartman leads the team with six goals. Minnesota claimed Rem Pitlick off waivers in the preseason and provides the type of playmaking ability and speed someone like Daniel Winnik or Chris Porter could only dream of in a fourth-line role.
This offensive depth has given this year's team a look the Wild have never quite had before. All four lines are a threat when they hop over the boards, meaning opponents never get a moment to breathe defensively. Would it be nice to see Kaprizov and Fiala fill the back of the net more? Sure, and they most likely will very soon. However, the Wild's young and talented depth is leading the way in the meantime, which fans haven't seen for quite some time.
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